Friday, May 19, 2023

Tee-up, North Korea's Golf Courses

Pyongyang Golf Club in 2015, prior to expansion program. (CC BY-SA 2.0, Uri Tours)

It is often erroneously reported that North Korea only has a single golf course. In fact, the country has three, but none are open to the general public. In this article, I'll examine each one and their current status.

The golf course (39.107805° 125.997879°) at the unofficially-named Samsok Mansion, along the banks of the Taedong River east of Pyongyang, was recently in the news because North Korea tested its Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile on April 13 from a launch pad mere meters away. 

The launch site is located on an island within the mansion complex that was fitted out with berms and ponds (for an unknown reason) prior to the missile test. 

The golf course is the nation's smallest and was added to the mansion grounds in 1986. It consists of three holes with six sand traps which are arranged along a semicircular course running for 600 meters.

The mansion isn't one of the main residences for the Kim family, but it is surrounded by a dozen smaller villas set within a wooded landscape that are all interconnected by a network of private lanes. This suggests that the mansion serves as the center of a rural 'getaway' for the country's elite and provides a slower pace of life for those visiting.

Pyongyang Golf Club after 2017-2019 renovations.

The most well-known golf course, however, is the Pyongyang Golf Club (38.897281° 125.437426°). Located on the banks of Lake Taesong, this 18-hole course is part of a larger 16.4 sq. km. pleasure ground for the country's elite. Opened in 1987, it has been reserved for use by the country's wealthy and foreigners. 

In 2011 it began hosting the DPRK Amateur Golf Open, but there hasn't been a new tournament since 2016 despite attempts by several tourist groups to resume the competition.

Pyongyang Golf Club after most new construction had been completed in 2019.

However, that doesn't mean activities at the golf course have ceased. In 2018 plans were released by the government detailing an expansion of the Club. This included the addition of nine new holes, additional lodgings and other facilities.

Construction actually started as early as April 2017, with early landfill activities, but it began in earnest in 2018 and by February 2019 at least 13 buildings were nearing completion. Changes at the site also involved the creation of a small pond (by building a barrier to enclose a smaller portion of the lake) and the installation of a helipad which was finished by Nov. 2019.

Close-range ballistic missiles being launched on March 10, 2023 at Taesong Lake. Image: KCNA

Approximately 1 km north of the original club house is a peninsula that was meant to hold five of the nine new golf holes. Those have yet to be constructed but the peninsula did serve as the site of CRBM missile launches in March 2023. 

North Korea's third golf course was created as part of the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region (38.712675° 128.213664°) beginning in 2005. The course and grounds cover approximately 143 hectares and contains several lodgings/hotels, a clubhouse, and access to the floating Hotel Haegumgang.

The tourist region had been established as a joint DPRK-ROK venture, but the effort didn't last long.

The golf course in 2021 after years of neglect. 

Following the killing of a South Korean tourist in 2008, tourism from South Korea was halted. The North Korean government began to run domestic tours to the region in 2010 but these tours didn't generate much interest. 

For all intents and purposes, the golf course was shuttered soon after. Both sides have floated ideas to restart joint tourism, but nothing has come of these talks. 

In 2019 Kim Jong Un announced his intentions to rebuild and modernize the golf course and the whole tourist zone (regardless of South Korea's desires, as the area was largely financed by South Korea). This included the demolition of a hotel next to the golf course, the planned destruction of the Hotel Haegumgang, and other sites throughout the 530 sq. km. region.

As of late 2022, no new construction is visible, and the golf course has been allowed to decay. 

The former Yanggakdo Golf Course as seen in May 2011, a few months before its removal.

There had been a fourth golf course (38.997397° 125.750226°), one that was located on Yanggakdo Island in the middle of Pyongyang, next to the famous (or infamous) Yanggakdo International Hotel. But it was removed in late 2011 to make room for another hotel; however, that hotel still hasn't been completed.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters who help make all of this possible: Alex Kleinman, Amanda Oh, Donald Pierce, Dylan D, GreatPoppo, Jonathan J, Joel Parish, John Pike, JuneBug, Kbechs87, Russ Johnson, and Squadfan.

--Jacob Bogle, 5/18/2023